121: Denis Cosgrove’s Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape

From my notes from Spring 2012:

In Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, Denis Cosgrove argues that the idea of “landscape constitutes a discourse through which identifiable social groups historically have framed themselves and their relations with both the land and with other human groups, and that this discourse is closely related epistemically and technically to ways of seeing.” (xiv) In other words, both humanistic and scientific approaches to landscape construct, represent, and interpret landscapes from a single, primarily visual, ideological perspective.  If this perspective is more invested in conveying the individual consumption of the landscape than in collective production of it, it also clearly articulates the construction of landscape and landscape discourse with power.

Cosgrove builds this argument through a history of the ‘landscape idea’ as it developed in Europe during the shift from feudalism to capitalism (from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution), where he subjects transitions in both physical construction of landscapes (from feudal manors and land-bound serfs to property and landless, mobile populations) and representation of landscapes (from landscape painting and maps to photography) to an analysis intended to break down the ideological emphasis on the visual and to reveal the collective social construction of landscape.  

Further, his account breaks down ‘vulgar’ Marxism using three then-recent developments in Marxist theory.  These include the ‘cultural turn,’ which emphasizes a dialectical relationship between base and superstructure (and thus between means of production and ideas about landscapes), the construction of social formations as historically/ geographically specific social groups that include dominant, residual, and emergent elements (so a little Williams, a little Gramsci, and a lot of decentering of the classic binary model), and the emphasis on a kind of universal human experience that underlies both the construction and interpretation of landscape (maybe like Lacan’s Real?) and that allows him to claim that certain symbolic constructions/ “analogic reasoning” speak to everyone the same way.  He concludes that landscape can be deceptive because it hides the human struggles that went into its construction beneath an ideological veil of apparent coherence and unity.

As Cosgrove explains in his 1998 Introductory Essay, the argument that the landscape idea is ideological and is dialectically related to social formations is the main strength of the book.  Apparently, geography in the 1980s was lagging behind cultural studies, anthropology, history, and other disciplines and was still focusing on writing pretty descriptions of landscapes instead of analyzing them critically for potential ideological biases, and this book helped get the discipline moving in the right direction.  [update: I think what Cosgrove might have actually meant here was that he wanted to move away from the universalism/individualism of the humanist approach and look more closely at power dynamics and social divisions in the landscape.]  

And Cosgrove’s method definitely has its merits.  Considering that his contemporaries (Tuan, JB Jackson, Meinig) were heavy on the “landscape as coherence and unity” argument, Cosgrove is actually pretty radical in his explicitly Marxist critical approach to the dual histories of capitalism and landscape painting/ art in Western Europe from the 14th to the 19th centuries.  While the other writers only gesture to social divisions, Cosgrove focuses on them and on the constructed nature of the landscape itself.  He also makes good use of dialectics to explain the importance of a study of landscapes in the first place: he argues that rather than the base always determining the superstructure, base and superstructure are dialectically related so that changes in consciousness can beget changes in the landscape and vice versa.  Most of the writers in Meinig’s collection also talk about this relationship, but without the explicit Marxism; although I’m generally in favor of simple language, in this case Cosgrove’s slightly more complex formulations do a good job of revealing the theoretical complexities of landscape.  It’s subjective and objective, historical and artistic at once; it can be revolutionary – simply changing the way of seeing/ perspective and what is seen/ represented/ emphasized/ constructed can be a radical act.  


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